|Non Serviam: Evasion and Dissent From The Draft During The Vietnam War
|Interview||the full text of an interview with Chris Faiers conducted via email by John who had chosen draft resistance as the subject of a research report for his high school English class, completed in December 2002|
|Comment||some afterthoughts by John|
|Report||final research report|
|References||works cited in the report + links|
35 years later
1) At the time did you clearly understand the Vietnam conflict? How did the media portray the issue?
I feel I had a fairly clear understanding of the issues. I'm 54 years old now, & I'm remembering back almost 35 years, from when I was 19 to 21, but I'll try my best to be as accurate & nonrevisionist as possible with my answers :)
At first there was little media coverage, but as the war escalated in '67 & peaked in '68-'69, the coverage increased dramatically. The main source of info to me was newsmagazines like "Newsweek" & "Time". My memories are that these mags gave a fairly objective overview of the war.
2) What was your reaction to the draft and the possibility of being drafted? Where were you? How did you view your future?
I was living in Miami, Florida. I was attending community college for 2½ years, & then a semester at The University of Miami.
Much of the time I was scared shitless. I don't remember thinking much more than a week or so ahead. The prospect of becoming forcibly involved in the murder & mayhem precluded long range planning :)
3) How did you avoid being drafted?
In June of 1969 I received 3 draft notices in a week, & it was time to decide. Until then I had managed to appeal numerous draft notices for several years thru my student deferment. My situation is somewhat unique (as was everyone else's, I guess) in that I'm a Canadian national by birth. I was still eligible for the draft as a "resident alien".
When I received the 3 draft notices in a week, & the draft board (in Atlanta, Georgia, where I had lived just prior to moving to Miami) took away my student deferment, my parents suggested I go to live in England with my cousin.
4) Was there an incident or factor that cemented your objection to the war?
The image that stays in my mind to this day is that of the Buddhist monks who were committing suicide by setting themselves on fire to protest their country's invasion. In a corner of my mind there is always a saffron-robed monk making the strongest protest statement possible - his self immolation. That a human being could believe so strongly in his cause, and choose to take his own life as the ultimate form of passive resistance, was a deciding factor.
5) Did your feelings (or the feelings of those around you) change as the Vietnam War progressed?
I lived on Key Biscayne, an idyllic suburban island community about five miles off the coast of Miami. So far as I know, I was the first KB objector to the war. At about the age of 19 I actively campaigned for Eugene McCarthy for president, & I don't believe he received one vote in the Key Biscayne riding.
I remember attending a peace demonstration on Flagler Street (Miami's main drag) across from the downtown library (1968?). There were about 10 or 15 of us at this first demo, and all of us were teens or early 20s at the oldest. Miami was, & is, an exceptionally reactionary city, & the anti-war movement, like many other cultural events of the time, was slow in arriving & being accepted in Miami.
6) What was your stance on war before you were threatened with being drafted?
When I graduated from high school in 1966, I was a naive 17-year-old. No awareness that I can recall of the war in Vietnam, except for a terrible song played on top 40 radio, "The Ballad of the Green Berets". I registered with the draft board in Atlanta a month after graduation on my 18th birthday, & then we moved to Miami. Quite soon after we moved I remember having to apply for my student deferment, & that's when I became aware of the war.
7) Did you feel unpatriotic for not supporting the war? How did the war affect your view of the U.S. Government?
I was a Canadian by birth, altho I had lived in the US from second grade, age 7. At first I had somewhat bought into all the usual American patriotism (pledging allegiance every day for 11 years has some effect on you).How did the war affect your view of the U.S. Government? When I realized what was going on I was appalled.
8) What first made you consider leaving the United States?
The more I studied the war thu books and the media, contacted anti-war groups like The Friends Service Committee & read "underground" newspapers like "The Village Voice" in the college library, the more I knew I was not going to fight this war, whatever the cost.
9) Were you involved in any war protests or protest groups?
Yes, I was one of the first anti-war protesters in Miami (see library demo above). I also started publishing my own version of an underground newspaper, a mimeographed couple of pages creatively called "Papers". I distributed "Papers" at my community college, & perhaps more importantly, at local high schools. I was also one of the leaders at community college who formed an anti-war activist group called the Student Action Committee (a play on that other acronmym, the strategic air command).
10) Do you believe that your life would have been different had the draft not happened?
Of course :)
Who knows what would have happened ... e.g.) career choices - I remember thinking on one evening walk that I would become a teacher after I graduated from college/university... job opportunities...
If you skim thru my memoir, "Eel Pie Dharma", you'll get an overview of how disenfranchised my life became. I went from living the life of a middle-class college kid to a longhaired hippie living in an abandoned hotel. Not many career choices there - I became a cemetery worker & gravedigger for a year, a hotel worker for 6 months, etc. Even on my return to Canada, I was so destabilized & confused & generally such a hippie outcast that regular employment was not a serious option for many years. Last summer I read Jack Todd's "The Taste of Metal: a Deserter's Story" & it was interesting that he experienced many of the same problems I did regarding employment (& lack thereof).
11) Do you regret any of the choices you made during the Vietnam War period?
No. It's the first or second thing in my life I'm most proud of! I learned most people are sheep - that they don't think for themselves, and that when the chips are down, you really can't depend on many people in life, including your own family :(
That we each have to make choices, regardless of what everyone else is doing. It gave me an understanding of how the German people supported Hitler during WW2, altho finally enough of the american public awoke sufficiently to protest & stop the war.
12) Is there anything you would like to change/clarify about how the Vietnam War is viewed/interpreted today?
The US is rapidly becoming the "New Rome", the centre of empire, and as the rulers of the world, they are the current arbiters of much world opinion. I believe that many US leaders from that time should be tried in the World Court for war crimes.
Also I find the Vietnam War Memorial a "brilliant" case of rewriting history. Soldiers who many consider war criminals, now have their own memorial. Bizarre.
13) Was there a particular author you admired that supported your anti-war views? If so, how did that person influence/guide your thoughts?
Oh, my aging memory : ) I remember reading Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and also several other important, academically accepted books at the time which were strongly opposed to the war. I also met (very briefly) Dr. Spock, the child psychologist, who was against the war. & I heard Muhammed Ali speak in a forum at The University of Miami. In the same series of forums I heard Dr. Fritz Perls, the gestalt guru.
Perhaps the author who most influenced me was Henry David Thoreau, in his essay, "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience".
Also the Black Panther movement was speaking out against 'black people killing yellow people for the white people'.
Perhaps the most important anti-war messages were the songs on the radio. First the "underground" stations played stuff, but pretty quickly it all became mainstream. & THE BEATLES! John Lennon. George Harrison. Bob Dylan - "Masters of War", "Blowin' in the Wind", Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Arlo Guthrie, son of folk singer icon Woody. HENDRIX! Every pop radio station was playing music that was either consciously or indirectly promoting the peace movement.
The basic situation which caused the VN War remains. If anything, the US is even more of an empire-building nation than it was during the Cold War era when the VN War raged The protesters, draft resisisters & deserters helped end the VN War, but we didn't solve the root problem - US expansionism. Until the majority of potential US soldiers realize that they are fighting wars to build a US world-wide empire, these localized wars will pop up again & again. (This assumes that most rational people won't want to fight wars "for the glory of empire" - maybe I'm overestimating human sensitivity & empathy here).
- by Chris Faiers (November 2002)
comment by John (November 2002)
I think society today assumes that my generation knows what they are talking about when they mention Vietnam. Unfortunately I know from my own knowledge Vietnam is a subject most US history courses never get to, not to mention barely finishing World War II. I think it's a bit ironic that young Americans like myself don't get the chance to learn about a situation that is very similar to the world I'm growing up in now. Instead of heavily focusing on the economic situation of the 1830s (which I admit is still important) kids should be learning the harsh realities of their government. I must admit from some of the background reading that I have been doing in books by Columbia Presses I'm quickly learning those realities. I think the most shocking discovery I've had was if the US National Reserves had been called up, no draft would have been needed. It's truly disheartening for me to know that when you strip away all the technical issues / reasons for government action it all comes down to money.
John's final research report
Draft Evasion - 5 December 2002
Non Serviam: Evasion and Dissent From The Draft During The Vietnam War
It's 1970, the television is on and everyone is gathered to watch. The numbers keep going round and round until the machine stops and a number is selected. Is this the lottery, where that number on the screen means early retirement and a luxurious, carefree life? Young men of that time would have wished it to be true, but the unfortunate reality was the numbers meant for many they were going to Vietnam. My primary sources all responded to a question about their being drafted saying that it really affected them deeply when it was their turn. They all went on further to express feelings of a bleak future controlled by the United States Government. Mr. Johnson's response to my interview question about his reaction to the draft made me think about the cruel realities these young men had to face. "I was opposed to the draft, which I saw as unfair and discriminatory and run by old men who had never really been in battle themselves but who saw no compunction in putting others at risk" (Johnson). I was intrigued even further when Mr. Johnson said that he would have gone to jail for his beliefs. I was beginning to see a new side to draft resisters, and to reject the propaganda I had been fed most of my life designed to make me believe subconsciously that draft evasion was unpatriotic, even though I really knew nothing about it. Perhaps resisting the Vietnam War Draft, far from being a cowardly action, was a powerful anti-conscription statement that demonstrated true patriotism.
What the Draft is
The Concise Dictionary of American History says the draft "enrolls able-bodied men for military service" (298). Napolean Bonaparte of France was the first leader to use conscription, what Americans know as the "Selective Service System" (Harkavy 324). In the United States, conscription first appeared in Abraham Lincoln's administration, but the draft was not a significant factor in raising armies until World War I (324). Presently in the United States the draft does not exist, however every male must register in case the system is ever reinstated. A young man must register within 30 days of his 18th birthday, or otherwise face fines and jail time. The government also denies certain benefits to those who choose not to register. The draft, if reinstated, would be based around a lottery system corresponding to a draft number given to the male who registers. When that person's number was picked he would report for a preinduction physical and be given a classification. However, just because the young man's number was picked does not mean he would go to war. If he had a legitimate reason, he could apply for a deferment (Harris). The draft resisters I consulted took educational deferments, 4F status, consciencous objector (CO) status, and one was trying to obtain CO status before he finally fled the country. Although the system may seem fair, most of these anti-war classifications were very difficult to obtain. Mr. Auger, for instance, described all the letters and documentation from his pastor and others that he had to fill out just to obtain his CO status. Even then he had to work at a reform school in place of military service. As one can see, draft resistance was not easy and required a lot of effort on the part of the person involved. That is not the act of a coward. These men did not hide, they stood out.
The Vietnam Conflict
The United States sent troops to Vietnam intending to stop the spread of Communism into that area, and used the Gulf of Tonkin incident, reportedly a North Vietnam attack on the U.S.S. Maddox in 1964, to justify massive intervention (Anderson 45). Vietnam had been split into two nations, the North communist, and the South proclaiming itself democratic. The South's assertion was strange because its "democracy" was oppressive, especially to the Buddhists, one of whose leaders burned himself in protest. The United States decided to take over the South's fight even though America's leaders were unhappy with the South's government. It was not until 1975 that the Vietnam War ended even though both North and South signed the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 during Richard Nixon's administration. The United States had decided to abandon the conflict, and in 1975 North Vietnam took over the South (78). The United States got nothing from this war except men in body bags and a substantial debt.
All the resisters I interviewed took a different course, but they all had similar objections to the Vietnam War. All of the men replied exactly the same to two of the questions I asked. Far from regretting their decisions of that time, all said that it was the one thing in their lives that they were most proud of. When I asked whether they thought themselves unpatriotic, they replied they felt more patriotic. For them, real patriotism focuses on the protection and love of one's country and rejects the slogan, "My country right or wrong." As Mr. Johnson put it, "..my idea of patriotism had and has little to do with flag waving and other activities which try to make "patriotism" into some sort of religious exercise" (Johnson).
My first contact was Chris Faiers, three decades ago a Canadian living in the United States, but still eligible for the draft. While he was applying for CO status he decided to leave the country because he received three draft notices in one week. He went to live with relatives in England and then settled in Canada where he is now. When I asked Mr. Faiers if there was something he would like to change about the perception of the Vietnam War, he said he found the construction of the Vietnam Memorial a classic example of rewriting history. "Soldiers who many consider war criminals, now have their own memorial. Bizarre" (Chris Faiers).
The next person I interviewed was Mr. Johnson. He starved himself in order to be underweight, be declared 4-F, and thus judged unable to serve. When I asked Johnson what he would change about the current perception of Vietnam he said, "I would like the history to be better understood in our schools. I would like the work of those who opposed the war to be honored. I would like those who are still around who prosecuted the war to be tried (but I know that won't happen.) I would like more people to understand that even when the war was coming to an end, it was still a minority who really opposed the war. I wish, nevertheless, that the lessons of the war had stayed with us. I wish those who were in school now, would see the folly of that war and understand that other wars are a folly as well" (Johnson).
Many high schoolers never get past World War II in their history classes, and Korea and Vietnam are mostly ignored. People have forgotten the division the Vietnam War caused among United States citizens, and everyone assumes my generation completely understands the Vietnam War. Also the United States seems to glorify all the wars we have participated in. Those who stood for the beliefs of their country by choosing not to engage in a foreign war are treated as if they were the enemy. Perhaps one day those men will receive recognition, but probably not in their lifetime.
My third source was Mr. Auger, a conscientous objector. When I asked him the same question he wrote, "Yes, it's pretty clear in light of what's happened since the fall of Russian communism that when the communist countries of the mid 20'th century referred to their struggle as a war against American imperialism, they were right." As much as I dislike communism, the United States seems to be the kind of imperial power the communists feared. Just as happened at the time of the Vietnam War, our president is able today to send our troops into battle without a declaration of war by Congress. Even more than at that time, our military seems to be constantly defending one of the largest empires the world has ever seen, with our soldiers active in countries all over the globe.
My last source was my father who took educational and, later, teaching deferments. When I asked him the same question as the others, his response was similar to Mr. Faiers'. He said it is interesting how the U.S. Government is trying to rewrite history. "The government tries to make the war we lost into a glorious event, something it wasn't" (Grimes).
During my interviews I heard many statements that support the belief that draft evasion was not a cowardly action. Three of the men were actively involved in campus demonstrations which posed great danger to them because of the pro-war sentiment at that time. A coward tries to avoid any sort of conflict, but these men did just the opposite.
The Government is Too Powerful
As the Concise Dictionary of American History says, "The National Defense Act of 1920 created army and navy Selective Service Committees for the next emergency (Draft 299)." The amount of power the United States Government has over its draft age citizens has not changed much since that 'next emergency,' World War II. After that war the draft was forgotten, but it didn't disappear, and when the Vietnam War came along all its systems were still in place. In Robert Higgs's essay "War and Leviathan in Twentieth Century America: Conscription as the Keystone," he wrote that the draft during World War II led to the creation of a huge army that affected the economy and forced the U.S. Government to step in to control it. When the crisis was over the government never returned control of the economy to the people (376). I would go one step further and say the Government hasn't released yet the control it had over its citizens, and that this is an abuse of power on the part of the Executive Branch. Again today there is talk in Congress of reactivating the draft if war in Iraq becomes a reality.
Presently, the government takes an even more active role in the lives of young men using the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC). It is taught by retired military men to high schoolers. Kids wear an American uniform once every week to class and practice marches and drills (Junior). Under the eyes of adults, kids are becoming trained soldiers, machines at the disposal of the government. State governments have also tried to grab some of the power. Recently the state of New Hampshire tried to establish mandatory draft registration using young men's driver's licenses (2). As Joseph Sobran says in his article, "Anarchy," "State is an organized force... Obey, or we will hurt you." If the state has limitless power we will have to obey, and that violates the freedoms of young men. To force participation in the military is the act of a tyranny and endangers our liberty. I agree full heartedly with Daniel Webster when he said in Congress, ". . . to make an ordinary man fight a war he detests and he dies it is murder" (43). Draft resisters during Vietnam were not going to commit suicide against their will. Using Webster's logic, what man would sign his own death warrant for a cause he didn't believe in? I know no such man.
Why Draft Resisters are Disliked and Why They were Right
On Viper's Vietnam Veteran's Page, I came across the statement, "If you are a Draft Dodger, or a Flag Burner, you not welcome here, this website is way beyond your comprehension, get lost!"(Viper's) There were many statements there similar to, "When they heard the call... Some gave all"(2). I realized that men who served felt cheated, and I came up with this hypothesis: These men were cheated because they were unjustly sent overseas while others were not. One example I found that supported my belief was "Bill Clinton's Letter to Col. Eugene Holmes," printed by Larry Poss. I discovered there a man who joined the ROTC program, dropped out, and became a CO thanks to Col. Holmes. Was this the same man who sent troops to bomb Kosovo and Iraq? It was apparent Mr. Clinton only cared about his life. Now I knew why draft resisters were disliked: there were hypocrites among them.
The Viper's veteran page might have a point, but I found information elsewhere about draft resisters who "gave all" in a different way. Andy Barrie became the "new voice" to Canadian radio; Eric Nagler became one of Canada's best known writers and performer of children's songs; and John Thompson designed an improved street car corridor for Toronto (Hagan). Jesse Winchester became an important guitar player and vocalist, and was famous in Canada before expanding his career to this country after the 1977 amnesty to draft evaders (Jesse). It makes me wonder how many other talented men were lost in Vietnam because the U.S. was fighting Communism. Draft resisters were right when they vowed not to don an American uniform and instead made a positive contribution to society.
In the end, people may never see past the story of "military glory" fed to them on their televisions, but it is wrong to place the blame for losing a war on those who were right to resist it. In "The Vietnam War", Jacob Hornberger says that the soldiers who fought against communists were patriots and those who opposed the war were patriots too. The real blame should fall on the politicians and bureaucrats who broke America's trust by promoting a war that from the start was a failure (289). I believe firmly that of the two possible courses of action open to draft aged men, submission to the military was the easier because it required less thought on the part of the individual. Draft evasion was harder because it meant commitment to a personal plan of action that had to be made up day to day. This further supports my conclusion that resisting the Vietnam War was not a cowardly action; a coward does not have commitment to anything. It was a powerful anti-conscription statement which demonstrated true patriotism. It is an action that should never be forgotten in American history, especially now.
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Auger, Rod. 19 Nov. 2002. Email to the author. 21 Nov. 2002.
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17 June 2001. Boston Globe Newspaper. 7 Nov. 2002.
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Sobran's. 6 Nov. 2002
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Ed. Richard M. Ebeling and Jacob G. Hornberger.
Fairfax Virginia: The Future Freedom Foundation, 1996.